Monarca Academy, a school where cultural identity is a priority
There’s a list of things Carol Núñez has never experienced and not for lack of interest: Homecoming, prom, college.
As a teenager from Mexico, she arrived in Indianapolis with her family in 2004 and attended Pike High School. But Núñez never felt welcome, she says. She skipped the high school social pillars even though she considers herself “very social.”
His English was sparse; his parents knew none of them; Hoosiers who spoke Spanish were rare, she said.
“It was hard to make friends,” said Núñez, 32. “In a way, I had a bit of depression.”
She also wanted to go to college, but didn’t apply because she didn’t think she could afford it.
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“I didn’t have the resources,” Núñez said. “I didn’t know how to apply for scholarships.”
These are the moments that Núñez never wants to miss for the Latino youth of Indianapolis.
At Monarca Academy, a new IPS innovation charter school, where Núñez teaches middle school students traditional Mexican folk dancing, the Latino and immigrant experience is front and center.
Their goal is to remove language and cultural barriers that limit academic success for students of color and to encourage students to embrace their identity.
Classes are taught in English, but materials and texts are also offered in Spanish. Faculty and staff alternate seamlessly between the two languages as needed when speaking to students; and students are allowed to respond to teachers in Spanish.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Núñez said. “I wish I had that back then.”
Learn without ‘giving up who they are’
Monarca welcomed its first batch of students in August, concluding a two-year journey started by school founder Francisco Valdiosera. Initial funding came from a grant Valdiosera received with The Mind Trust.
It is located in the heart of the city’s culturally diverse northwest side at 5525 West 34th Street.
For now, the school only teaches sixth grade. There are five full-time employees and 42 students. Registration is open for current sixth graders.
Valdiosera said the plan is to add an additional year to Monarca each year until reaching grade 12. But that depends on funding and personnel, he added. Registration for next year’s class, which will include grades six and seven, begins November 2.
Opening the school with sixth-grade students was a strategic decision by Valdiosera.
“We wanted to have that extra time with them,” Valdiosera said, “to prepare them for the rigors of high school.”
Once in high school, black and brown students in Indiana experience disproportionate achievement gaps, passing state exams and graduating from high school at far lower rates than white students. The state’s overall graduation rate is 86%, but recent data shows that only 81% of Hispanic students graduate on time.
Monarca school principal Felicia Sears attributes this to lack of access to opportunities and a lack of cultural competency in traditional school settings.
When students do not see themselves in textbooks; do not see themselves in the faculty; don’t have their cultural norms represented or respected, Sears said, their confidence wanes and success is compromised. When language barriers are dismissed as weaknesses instead of embraced as alternative means of understanding, she continued, achievement gaps appear.
“We don’t want them to feel like education means giving up on who they are,” Sears said, which, as a “light-skinned Latina,” is something Sears said. she sometimes did to fit in with her white peers when she was of school age.
Monarca’s mission to maintain cultural pride as well as education is one Sears takes personally.
Infuse culture into the educational experience
One Thursday afternoon, in a chairless classroom in Monarca, Núñez stood in front of 21 students buzzing with excitement.
These were rehearsals of a traditional Mexican folk dance taught by Núñez through his organization, Grupo Folclórico Macehuani.
“One, come. Two, arriba,” Núñez told them, as smiles and laughter filled the room.
Long hair, curly hair, straight hair, and braided hair swayed in front of her as she guided them through a warm-up. Caramel and coffee-colored arms reached up toward the ceiling, hands clasped.
Núñez and Grupo Folclórico Macehuani are one of the many community partners Monarca works with to infuse culture into the educational experience. In the next classroom, the instructor was doing capoeira and singing in Portuguese. The students sat in a circle, clapping their hands and beating drums.
These efforts are an integral part of Monarca’s plan to improve academic success by responding to students’ cultural identities. Typical classes like social studies, science, and math are still offered, but there’s also an ethnic studies class where conversations about race take place.
Sears said Monarca welcomes students from all walks of life. Although the majority are Latinos, there are also East African, Haitian and Native American students. And for those who don’t speak Spanish or English, Monarca partners with the Immigrant Welcome Center and works with staff to communicate with students and their families.
“One of my favorite words in education is identity,” Sears said, “because if you feel like you matter, then you have a desire to keep trying to improve and to persevere.”
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